With over 35 million specimens in its holdings, the National Entomological Collection, based at the National Museum of Natural History, is one of the largest insect collections in the world. The collection’s size and diversity make it widely sought after for study by researchers, but not everyone can visit the collection in person. Fortunately, technology is making it easier for us to share specimen data and photos online, making the collection accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Not only is this convenient for the scientific community, but it also reduces the need to ship specimens out on loan, protecting them from possible damage or mishandling. In this post, we will give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we take our insect collection from the cabinets to the online community.
The goal is to get as many specimens as possible digitized; however, the highest priority is given to type specimens. The type specimen is the individual used in the original description of a species, and as such, they are very valuable to researchers. Below is the type specimen of Ommatius alexanderi, a species of robber fly.
A staff member enters data from the specimen into the Research and Collections Information System called EMu, short for Electronic Museum. Ideally, the record should contain as much information as available from the specimen and labels, including name, stage, preparation, and collection information. The specimen is also given a barcode label with a unique identifier number; this number serves the purpose of linking the specimen with the database record and images as it becomes part of the image name. The information can either be entered directly into EMu or imported from another program, such as Microsoft Excel.
If photos of the specimen are available, they can also be uploaded and attached to the record. For some purposes, high-quality photos of a specimen may suffice as a more convenient alternative to an in-person examination.
About once a week, the system refreshes the EMu records and updates them on the Entomology Collections website. The collections search page allows you to select fields to make your search results as broad or narrow as you want; for example, you can search for all specimens in a genus, or just those from a certain state collected within a range of years.
Clicking the plus-sign (+) next to record you want to view will bring it up in a new window.
If there are pictures available, you can click on the thumbnail in the record to view the full-resolution image and image data. A complete record with images is not only useful to researchers, but it also allows anyone anywhere to see insects that are usually not available to the public eye!
Erin K. Kolski, Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
All photos and screenshots: Erin Kolski